How and why workplace tech is becoming more inclusive

December 29, 2021, 2:00 PM UTC

Across the world, people are using more technology and using it more often, especially at work. This has led to a push from technology companies to make their products more accessible and inclusive.

Sanaz Ahari, senior director of product at Google, oversees communications products across Google Workspace and Android, including email, videoconferencing, and collaboration tools. During the pandemic, “we had consumers relying on [our tech], and we had educators relying on it, in addition to people at work,“ Ahari told Fortune. “The products look nothing like they did [compared with] March of last year.”

At a time when the public is expecting more when it comes to equity and social responsibility, corporate leaders and boards of directors must consider the importance of inclusive offerings. A recent Forrester study found that 84% of companies are working on accessibility, and 36% report having a “top-down” commitment to this form of inclusion. A study of the Alexa 100. an index of some of the most-visited websites, found that 62% were accessible to screen readers for the visually impaired in 2021, up from 40% in 2020.

It also can make business sense, because if products are welcoming to more people, they can attract more users or buyers. In a competitive market, if a product is more friendly to Black or female consumers, for example, that could be an advantage.

For any company, developing a more inclusive suite of products or services requires expertise across diversity and inclusion (D&I) and change management, in addition to product management. Board and C-suite leaders must recognize the need to move forward on product inclusion.

Embedding inclusion in the road map and rollout of new tech

Because of remote work during the pandemic, COVID-19 precautions, and the need for distributed teams to stay connected, more workers are using a wider range of company-provided hardware and software.

In the past, people in marketing, HR, or finance were on much slower cycles for new software and hardware adoption. During the pandemic they had to pick up a lot of new tech, quickly. 

“The challenge is, tech folks mostly do [product development and feedback] based on individual interpretation,” Ahari said. “Individual interpretations only go so far when they’re not shared with the people that you actually work with.”

More users and faster cycles have forced tech providers to consider a much wider audience for the use of their products, including many who are not as technically savvy, or those who may be visually impaired, have different education, or may lack access to peace and quiet for work calls. Taking a meeting in the dedicated office of your house is different from taking one in the living room of an apartment that you share with two roommates, for example, and being remote at all can lead to different experiences in a meeting compared with when everyone’s sitting around a table together.

Cisco has made over a thousand product updates and acquired five companies in the past year to improve its suite of services in workplace technology and communications, EVP and general manager Jeetu Patel told Fortune. Inclusion is at the forefront of their product road map, he added.

“We’ve been very deliberate about saying there’s a tremendous opportunity we have with artificial intelligence to actually create a very inclusive environment, and that tech can make sure that happens in a much more effective way than the past,” he said.

As improvements on that front, Patel highlighted the addition of live captions for video meetings, translations on those live captions, and even gestures that trigger a digital response, which Patel demonstrated on a Webex call with Fortune. He gave a thumbs up, and a thumbs up logo appeared on his video box in the virtual meeting screen. Such technology drives inclusion by enabling all people to participate in meetings so that, say, loud talkers don’t dominate a conversation.

Ahari at Google echoed the need to encourage participation when it comes to the inclusive adoption of new technology at work. To that end, Google has created a hybrid working guide to help managers and leaders make the most of Workspace products, with tips on such topics as working in distributed and asynchronous fashion.

Worthy of a new department?

Global computer manufacturer Lenovo launched a product diversity office in 2021. The group started as a volunteer task force but is going to end this year with four full-time employees and one job opening. The company shared that greater headcount is approved for next year as well.

“I get to work with teams across the entire business, including our research, design, and product development experts, to ensure that our products are validated for inclusivity and accessibility at every step of the process,” Ada Lopez, program manager of Lenovo’s product diversity office, told Fortune.

Based on her experience working with product teams to embed concepts of inclusion into their existing processes—something product leaders do not always treat with a welcoming attitude—Lopez also emphasized the importance of communication, in this case for relating with product leaders to get them to change their behavior.

“They have their own process already written out. So what we have been doing in the product diversity office is writing our process into their process,” Lopez explained. She encouraged others looking to embed inclusion into product processes to play to product managers’ innate desire to innovate. 

Lopez also described how her office works differently with different groups, depending on their product.

“The [product diversity office] process for one business unit may not look exactly the same as for another business unit,” she said. “For example, hardware or software, our engagement is not exactly the same, because the factors that we’re considering are not the same.”

Lopez highlighted the use of language as another important aspect for business leaders to consider in the interest of product inclusion. Something like the absence of appropriate gender options, or using bad fonts and backgrounds for people who are color-blind, can be alienating and prevent people from accessing tools and information they need to succeed.

The topic is starting to generate greater awareness; at the highest levels it marries tech strategy with commercial and DEI considerations. As more people are online and working online, the importance of inclusion in tech products seems likely to mirror the importance of inclusion and equity in real life, and the public will continue to push for progress on it as well.

“I do feel like the world is getting smarter in these issues,” Patel said. “And frankly, people are getting a lot less tolerant of the ignorance around these issues as well.”

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